written by: Emma Lloyd
• edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski
• updated: 11/25/2008
Once firmly in the realm of science fiction, nanotechnology is becoming a reality – but what is it exactly?
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Nanotechnology (AKA nanotech) is a field in which the focus is on manipulating molecular and atomic interactions – structures which are 100 nanometers or even tinier. This field involves not only manipulating some of the smallest particles known to science, but also creating materials and devices of this size.
The incredibly small scale on which this work is conducted is virtually impossible to comprehend – a single nanometer is one billionth of a meter in length, and this makes it difficult to relate the scope of nanotechnology to everyday objects. Imagine this, however: ten hydrogen atoms, all lined up in a row, comprises around one nanometer.
Even so, nanotechnology is far from being science fiction, and in fact a dozen or more Nobel prizes have been awarded in nanotechnology and related fields during the last two decades, for discoveries such as fullerenes (molecules composed of large numbers of carbon atoms), and the development of the scanning probe microscope (which can create an image of the surface of a structure as small as an atom.
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Nanotechnology Applications, Real and Imagined
Perhaps the most pervasive idea in nanotechnology is the use of the tiny submarines in Fantastic Voyage, so tiny they could be inserted into the body, and directed to repair any malfunctioning tissues.
While this is clearly science fiction, nanotechnology comes closer than you might think – but sadly there are no tiny submarines involved here. Instead, the idea entails the use of nanotechnology as a means of drug delivery, for example by using nanomaterials as a delivery system across the skin or mucosa, to avoid the difficulty of having to deliver drugs through the hazardous environment of the stomach. Eventually it may be possible to integrate delivery and detection systems, allowing drugs to be targeted to the tissues which require them, thus helping to bypass toxicity and side effects on healthy tissue.
The Fantastic Voyage type of nanotechnology—that of taking existing items and making them smaller—is, however, just one part of the picture. New techniques and technologies for working on a small scale, coupled with better understanding of the materials themselves, means it’s possible to design and build structures from scratch – even designing molecules which can assemble themselves with no outside aid (a phenomenon which is crucial for cellular function).
Whether it’s shrinking something down, or building it small from the ground up, there are many wide-ranging applications for this new science.
Medicine – drug delivery, surgery, and cancer treatment are just a few of the many possible applications.
Electronics – a technology with the potential to vastly increase the power of current computer processors, improve the efficiency of solar technology, and improve the field of medical diagnostics
Microscopy – scanning probe microscopy uses a probe which scans a specimen to create an image of its surface. Some versions of this technology can create images of the surfaces of atoms.
Robotics – not quite the tiny robots on permanent “search and repair" mode inside the body, this type of technology will likely have applications in targeted drug delivery, surgery, and pharmacokinetics (the study of drug actions and interactions in the body over time). The field of nanorobotics is still largely theoretical, however.